Saturday, September 7, 2013

A Sheep's Eye View of Breakfast

Here's the routine. First they rush us through a little door down to the milking pen. It's a bit of a tussle sometimes to find a place to eat, but there's a place for each of us. Last sheep in gets the position furthest from the entrance, but closest to the exit.

They've got little bowls set out for us. Breakfast is a handful of  flavor pellets, some corn, some miscellaneous grains. Not a whole lot, but tasty - in that sort of "designed for maximum hunger response" sort of way.

While we're eating the stocks come down. May as well give in and enjoy what comes next.

The shepherds, pretty upbeat guys. And do I mean guys. Big lusty men.

They walk on down the line and attach milking claws with four little teat cups to our udders. It's a little odd. Not like having a baby lamb attached. But it's not so bad. You get used to it.

They time the milking pretty well to last as long as the meagre serving of food we get.  By the time we're done eating, we're fairly well drained of milk. The stocks come up and they herd us outside.

We're pretty free then to wander - within limits, that is - around and graze. The grazing - that's lunch and dinner. They got some big white dogs - friendly, like the shepherds - to keep us in line.

And it's off to work!

Friday, August 30, 2013

What's up with those sheep?

The countryside around Nuoro, Sardinia, is wild, but in a gentle kind of way.  Narrow roads rise from the plain into cork forests dotted with sheep and huge granite outcroppings, the latter mimicked by neolithic structures that testify to several thousand years of human habitation.

We went there to visit Testone, an agriturismo run by the Secchi family, Sebastiano and his son Matteo. It's a third-generation family farm with over 300 hectares and maybe 5 sheep per hectare.

About 30 minutes after leaving the city of Nuoro, we pulled up before an old stone building with a foosball machine and picnic bench on the porch.  A group of high-school students were boarding their bus for the return trip to Sassari. They'd spent the day learning where their food comes from. Sebastiano greeted us warmly and plunked down a bottle of local grappa on the picnic table, offered a toast, then left us with the jug while he attended to the departing guests. We were introduced to Mario, one of Sebastiano's lifelong friends, and an artesanal carpenter. Mario's voice boomed like those of the shepherds we would later meet, like he was calling from across the valley even through he was standing right next to us.

We would be the only guests 3 of the 4 nights we were there in March. But in high season the huge dining room with the fireplace at one end fills up with overnight visitors in addition to people who come for the day to eat well. Each night, Sebastiano or Matteo joined us at dinner, 3-hour affairs filled with conversation about matters ranging from music to politics to ornithology to local culture.

Almost everything we ate or drank during four nights there (except the coffee) was grown or made on the farm or nearby. Cheeses, of course,ricotta, pecorino of various ages, formaggio fresco and fresh sheep's milk for breakfast. Honey (miele de asfodelo) from local hives. Pane carrasau and white bread. Cannonau wine. Grappa, some infused with l'erba luisa, distilled by a local guy who pulls a still around the area in the back of his truck.

Here's some of what we ate and drank during the time we were there:

  • Testa in cassetta - head cheese
  • Filindeu and malloreddus - local varieties of pasta
  • Beccaccia - a kind of snipe, caught by Mario, turned into crostini and pasta sauce served over alisanzas (rough-cut lasagna-like pasta)
  • Corthella -- sweetbreads, lights and liver of lamb with bay leaves and a little vinegar
  • Cordedda - lamb intestines
  • Animelle - sweetbreads
  • Roast lamb
  • Porceddu - roast sucking piglet
  • Carciofi e finochietto salvatico - artichokes with wild fennel
  • Favete con pancetta e mente - fava beans and pancetta and mint with a little garlic 
  • Agrumello -  liqueur made with lemon and mandarines
  • Seadas - Sardinian cheese fritters with pecorino and lemon peel

Regrettably, we weren't able to participate in the cheese-making and other activities Testone has to offer. But one morning we woke early to follow the tinkling of sheep bells in the mist through the rock-strewn fields up to the the milking shed to join the sheep for their breakfast.

Here's the link to Agriturismo Testone's website.

Testone entranceWelcoming committeeMain building, TestoneGuest room terraceOld gateOutbuilding
Outbuilding interiorLower pastureValley viewValley view 2LiloOff to pasture

Testone, a set on Flickr.

Thursday, August 22, 2013


A recent exhibition, Illustrations of Diabolical Women, at the Yayoi Museum, was festooned with images of femme-fatales, terrifying she-monsters, a homunculus or two, and most hilariously, proto-middle class housewives (talk about scary!) who invaded the Japanese consciousness from the Taisho era well into the Showa. The small museum was packed with hundreds of illustrations - for book covers, magazines, posters and the collectors' market. The appearance of the aesthetics of ero guro nansensu (erotic grotesque nonsense), particularly in the early novels of Junichiro Tanizaki and Edogawa Rampo, set the stage for a vision of women at their most taboo, most dangerous, and most thrilling.

One artist that stood out among a mess of interesting illustrators was Sayume Tachibana (1892-1970). His paintings, drawing and woodcuts illustrated a dream-world of seductive, grotesque, strange, and strangely appealing women. One of his most arresting tropes is sort of surrealism of surfaces, where a kimono reveals the fires of hell, a woman's tattoo is a giant louse sucking the life from her body, the hair of a dreaming pair weave and tangle into a psychedelic pattern. And many of his subjects seem to be nodding into a junkie dream-world of sinister stillness, bordering on death. His work was just one of the many discoveries at this gem of a show.

The Yayoi Museum specializes in magazine, poster, manga and other illustrative arts of the 20th century. It's attached to the Takehisa Yumeji Museum, a mausoleum to Yumeji, a faux-naive painter and illustrator from the Taisho era, whose works haven't aged particularly well; imagine Margaret Keane-stye waifs in kimonos, but not painted quite so well. Be sure to check out the Yayoi. Skip Yumeji.

Yayoi Museum
2-4-2 Yayoi, Bunkyo, Tokyo 113-0032
tel: 03-5689-0462

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Zio Ignazio's Cantina

The Ajimi team had just arrived in the enchanting medieval town of Bosa. Austere, skinny buildings in candy colors lined narrow streets that mazed up a hillside toward a 12th-century castle. We dropped our bags and hit the streets. Only a couple of hundred meters from our hotel, along Via Carmine, we came upon Su Caricalzu, a cantina belonging to Zio Ignazio. I peeked down into the perfect wine cellar - low ancient arched stone ceilings, casks of wine on rough-hewn wooden tables, shelves and nooks holding old wine bottles, bric-a-brac, and fading photos. Zio Ignazio caught my eye and beckoned us in.

He asked us if we wanted to try some of his malvasia.

Of course we did! Apart from taking in the medieval surroundings, we had made a point of coming to Bosa to sample its most famous wine. We had been in town for probably less than an hour and our wish was being fulfilled. Zio Ignazio carefully filled three little glasses with some of his golden malvasia. Clean and sweet, with honey and honeysuckle overtones, it tickled our tongues with a medley of fruity tastes -  apricots, plums, and peaches. Imagine the original idea of nectar - the drink of the ancient Greek gods. I imagine that it tasted like this.

Malvasia is one of the more ancient grape varieties. A favorite of the Greeks, it spread around the Mediterranean. It was a popular wine until very recently, when after World War II tastes went toward drier reds and more easily appreciated whites. Luckily, the folks around Bosa ignored trends and kept making the stuff, pretty much the old fashioned way.

Zio Ignazio has some small holdings near town where he makes his incredible malvasia and a Nieddu, a bone-dry cannonau, austere, bracing, and lacking any oxidation, which mars or occasionally enhances  Sardinian wines. Zio Ignazio's generosity and ebullience was reflected in his wines.

We had stumbled upon his little man cave - a party room den that even had a urinal attached to a wall, next to a Goth-headed spouting font - by accident.  Zio Ignazio happened to be there and he shared his wine. I imagine that most of the year, it's more private - just him and his buds, making and drinking wine, shooting the shit. However on the first Saturday before Fat Tuesday, Bosa puts on the Karrasegare Osinku, the Festa di Cantina, when all the cantinas in town throw open their doors for food, drink, and pre-lenten revelry. That would be a good time to visit Zio Ignazio. Say hello from us. And tell him, "Thank you!"

Sunday, May 12, 2013

All Roads Lead to...

... Tokyo!

A delightful spring day found the Ajimi team taking some time off and going for a walk through Hibiya Park. We've been there many times, usually for events. We'd never taken the time to just wander around, look at the flowers, the sights and the people - who were out in force on this perfect day. First order of  business was to check out flower garden #1 on the north side of the park. A sweet little fountain, with pair pelicans surrounded by aloes, shooting streams of water from their extended beaks, stands at the entrance to the formal garden. Nearby is a somewhat lame deco-ish sculpture of a naked woman that I like to think of as Sacajawea. Perhaps it 's a bit more prosaic. Maybe it's Terpsichore. I don't recall Sacajawea ever being portrayed with a lyre. Nonetheless, her upraised hand made us want to follow her. And sure enough she led us to a she-wolf, hiding in the copse behind her, suckling a couple of chubby little babies - Romulus and Remus. 

It was particularly serendipitous to find this copy of the famous Capitoline Wolf sculpture near our home base. On our recent visit to Rome, we had ample opportunity to see another copy of it on the Capitoline Hill and a very amusing topiary version. It was a pleasant surprise to find little bit of the eternal city in Tokyo.

This she-wolf came to Tokyo in 1938. Seems that Mussolini envisioned himself as a modern Romulus -  the founder of a New Rome - so he had a mess of copies of the Capitoline Wolf made and sent around the world. There's apparently still one standing in Cincinnati. He also gifted both Rome, Georgia and Rome, New York with she-wolves of their own.  

The Capitoline wolf was once thought to be of Etruscan origin. Now it seems that she may be a 13th century copy, stylistically modified from an Etruscan original. The renaissance babies were added, well... in the renaissance. She's ever since been a symbol of Rome. Co-opted by fascists, she managed to hold her own. And here she is, hidden in a glade in the heart of a megacity, always on guard. Her adopted brood oblivious to anybody who stumbles upon them.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Domestic Terroirism

From the City of Mattawa website

No sooner had we been disabused of our notions about terroir by Roscioli's head sommelier, Alessandro Pepe, than an article pops up in the New York Times pushing the idea of terroir in Washington state.  Kevin Pogue, a geology professor at Whitman College, is gaining a reputation as a terroir finder par excellence. Seems no decent wine-grower east of the mountains can do without his input. He's a man who knows the weather, the geology, and most importantly, how it all works together to create the conditions for great grapes.

Of course, this doesn't contradict Alessandro's notions. Growing good grapes in optimum conditions is just the beginning. How it's turned into wine and the history, the individuals involved and the stories that wine tells are what give it depth and resonance.  The simple caveat is that terroir itself doesn't necessarily mean good wine. The word is used largely for marketing purposes.

I've been enchanted by one of Washingon's most famous terroirs since long before anyone imagined grapes being grown there. The Wahluke Slope is a long stretch of desert reaching out from Mattawa, a small town, largely Hispanic, near the banks of the Columbia River. The slope was impressive for its stark nothingness. Now there are acres of vines that stretch across that formerly barren expanse. Where the vines end, the desert begins.

There are now a couple of wineries near Mattawa. I haven't tasted their wines. But I can imagine a evening along the river on the south end of the Big Bend; a hot summer day becoming cool and quiet. A soft wind blowing across the river's gently flowing expanse. The air smelling like grasshoppers. The evening sky filling up with the Milky Way. With a big glass of Ginko Forest grenache and maybe some taquitos de lengua to assist me... I think I might reconsider terroir yet again.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Every Bicchiere Tells a Story (Don't It?)

You might call Alessandro Pepe an "anti-terroirist." I had brought up the notion of the terroir of the Yakima Valley. But before I could regale our group of wine lovers with details about the Waluke Slope or the Rattlesnake Hills, Alessandro, head sommelier at Roscioli, burst into laughter. In his view, terroir is in essence a marketing ploy French winemakers cooked up some years ago to add more mystique to already good wines and increase their market value. According to Alessandro, there more important factors to keep in mind when you drink a glass of wine.

But I've gotten ahead of myself. Let's back up a bit.

When the Ajimi team hit the streets of Rome recently, we booked a wine and food tasting at Roscioli. We had seen Anthony Bourdain's No Reservation segment on Rome where he had his way with a freshly opened parmesan in a back room at Roscioli. It was food porn at its finest. We wanted to get in on the action.

When we arrived, Roscioli was packed with all kinds of cheeses, salumi...and diners. Soon Alessandro whisked his small group of student drinkers down an alley, then through a few other backstreets to an unmarked door.  Beyond which lay a kind of laboratory for exploring wine: a central serving station enclosed by a couple of long counters with high stools. Tall shelves on three sides were crammed full with bottles of wine. A open door to the back room revealed even more cases.  It was the very room in which Bourdain had gone all weak-kneed over the wheel of cheese.

About 9 or 10 tasters had signed up. Alessandro broke the ice, asking each of us what we knew about wine.

That's when I brought up terroir.

It's not that Alessandro doesn't believe in terroir. Place, weather conditions, traditions - they all make for better or lesser wines. But there was one thing he was insistent on: there are more important considerations - even the personality of the winemaker will determine how the wine tastes. And the most satisfying and interesting wines have stories that give them a depth that goes beyond taste alone. After 10 wines, he had convinced us.

It's not about drinking the most expensive wines or eating the fanciest food. It's about establishing some kind of relationship with the producer. Not all of us have Alessandro's access to winemakers. Most of us won't get to hang out with them and hear their stories, but we can discern the personalities behind their art. We get much closer to these people every time we drink their wine and eat their food. The manufactured food products that line grocery store shelves exist for the sole purpose of filling maws - they don't encourage relationships. Enjoying good food comes, in part, from connection.

Over the next three hours, Alessandro carefully led us through a range of personalities, of tastes, of stories that made for an evening of discovery and conviviality.

Here's how it all went down.

1. Benevolo 2011 Movica  - This nice white is made by Mario De Lisi. He's a small producer frome near Orvieto. His Movica is a blend of 40 % grechetto piccolo and 60 % verdicchio. It had nice acid and quick finish that went will with a creamy burrata di Corato with Capuliato, an intense Sicilian sun-dried tomato spread.

2. Cesanese di Olveano Romano Silene 2010, Damiano Ciolli - Virginia had asked for a wine from Lazio, the province where Rome is located. Alessandro's not a big fan of the region's wine, but he brought out this nice cesanese. Dimiano Ciolli took over the family business in 2001 and quickly built up the quality (as have many Lazio producers) of the sturdy workhorse Cesanese grape. This wine had an almost evergreen quality, a bit of stinky nose and mineral finish that went will with the mozzarella di bufala with sundried cherry tomatoes.

3. Schioppettino 2006 Bressan - Fulvio Bressan has been working with ancient and obscure vines to produce a spicy, leathery, tobacco-y, cedar-y red that Alessandro described as sciupettino (noisy). That apparently describes the winemaker himself. Increasing the noise factor, it was served with a robiola di Roccaverano, a tangy goat cheese from Piemonte, that made the action in da mout' all the more exciting.

9/11/13 addendum - On Katie Parla's food blog there is a post highlighting Fulvio Bressan's    recent vile and racist postings on facebook about Cécile Kyenge, Italy’s Minister for Integration. The Ajimi team does not recommend supporting this man, no matter how interesting his wines are.

4. Ronco del Chiesa 2009, Borgo del Tiglio - Nicola Manferrari is one of the most amazing winemakers in Fruili. His Ronco del Chiesa is made from tocai grapes, and in all honesty, I'd never had a wine quite like it. It had a texture of pure silk, and hints of butterscotch and vanilla. It was soft and unctuous. When we returned to the wine a hour or so later, it had turned more austere and bright. Alessandro told us that Nicola rarely smiles. He makes serious wine, some of the best in the world. It was paired with Parmigiano-Reggiano vacche rosse, the one made from red-haired cows, though this was one Italian wine that didn't need to be drunk with food.

5. Pergole Torte 2007, Montevertine - Sergio Manetti, the old man of Montevertine, withdrew his wines from the Chianti Classico appellation, thinking that the whole thing was creating the conditions for lesser wines.  His son, Martino, carries on the tradition, putting his own stamp on these beautiful sangioveses. A perfect accompaniment was a prosciutto San Daniele, from Northern Italy.

6. Barbera del Monferrato Rossore 2010, Iuli - This barbera comes from a winery in the tiny village of Montaldo di Cerrina which opened its doors in 1998. Winemaker Fabrizio Iuli is a modern traditionalist, producing well-oaked, big wines with strong acidity, the perfect thing to go with an intensely meaty salsiccia Abruzzese.

7. Nanni Cope 2010  - Giovanni Ascione's vineyard may be tiny, but he's obsessive about every aspect of viticulture, from harvesting to production. His Nanni Cope, made from palagrello nero, was a beguiling chameleon of a wine, at one moment plummy, then with the flush of berries, then onto another fleeting taste and smell - a sort of 4-dimensional wine. It was served with a fatty and full-flavored capocollo di cinta senese (a very special breed of pig).

8. Barolo Vigna Lazzairasco 2008 Guido Porro - This barolo is made by 4th-generation vintner Guido Porro. It's a fine, elegant wine, not demanding, rather friendly, which matches what we've learned since of the winemaker himself.  It was paired with the best mortadella on Earth, nothing like the run-of-the-mill version of this meat product we'd experienced in the US. The mortadella Pasquini e Brusiani is from a producer in Bologna. Alessandro says only a handful of producers make good mortadella anymore.

9. Barbareso 2008, Roccalini - This nebbiolo, made by Paolo Veglio,  was a big, well-balanced, classic Barbareso, matched with some extremely savory pata negra Joselito from Salamanca. Alessandro decried the state of Italian sausage making, saying the the Spaniards are leading the field now. (He may be right on a certain level, but our further adventures in Sardinia proved that Italy still is way up there when it comes to cured pig meat.) Somewhere during all these courses a bowl of pasta alla gricia appeared. This simple Roman dish showed how a few simple ingredients (as long as they are the best), using a simple recipe (as long as it's perfectly prepared), can create a transcendent experience. The big Barbaresco was perfect with crispy, fatty chunklets of guanciale, handfuls of funky pecorino Romano over thick toothy tubes of rigatoni.

10. Moscato d'Asti Biancospino 2011 La Spinetta - This little beauty of a wine from La Spinetta was the capper to an amazing indulgence - a perfect wine for an early spring evening. There was a hint of green in its pale yellow visage. It had a round, fruity flavor of apricots and peaches, with a hint of flowery citrus. We topped it off with pieces of salty, grainy stravecchio rosso di Amandola and some red wine biscuits.

The late-night streets were nearly empty as the Ajimi team sauntered, sated, back to our apartment, feeling at one with the universe, or at least the portion of the universe responsible for producing such wonderful gifts of food and wine.

To find out more and book an evening with Alessandro, go to this link -

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Muralisti a Orgosolo

On one of the few sunny days during our stay in Sardinia's Barbagia region, we drove through the hills to the town of Orgosolo.

We won't go into the town's reputation as a bandit stronghold, which has been amply documented elsewhere.  But it was only 6 years ago that radical poet and union activist Peppino Marotto was gunned down in an Orgosolo street, perhaps for his politics, but more likely to settle a vendetta that went back to the 1950's. Suffice it to say that the spirit of independence and rebellion captured in the brilliant film Banditi a Orgosolo lives on here, not just in the Via Antonio Gramsci and the Piazza Carlo Marx (plenty of those elsewhere in Italy)  but in the murals on display everywhere you look.  The works feature political messages and exhortations to action reminiscent of Mexican muralismo.  Viewers are invited to reflect on issues ranging from poverty in Africa to the US military presence in Sardinia to the 9/11 attacks.  There are a fair number of images of people in typical Sardinian dress but they are often armed, apparently ready to do battle with anyone who crosses them, especially capitalists.

Apart from its setting high in the mountains, Orgosolo is not an inherently attractive place.  The murals have given outsiders a reason to visit and quite a few do, which helps boost the local economy.  Other Sardinian villages have taken heed and picked up the brush to paint murals of their own, but without the incendiary messages.  Many of the lovely villages we passed through had spoiled perfectly beautiful stone walls with images of picturesque old timers, sheep, scenes of a simpler times that maybe never were... the muralismo of Orgosolo has been degraded into folksy kitsch.   And, spookily, the 2D villagers portrayed on the walls of these places frequently outnumbered the flesh and blood citizens out in the streets.

Meanwhile, Orgosolo seems to be, you should pardon the expression, sticking to its artistic guns.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Found - Lost Bicycle

You wander the streets of Rome and around every corner is a new surprise, a new vista, a madonella, a food store fecund with cheese and salumi, a Roman ruin, a building festooned with baroque ornamentation, a monument. That's the fundamental, and fundamentally amazing pleasure of walking down those ancient streets. Sometimes, though, an intentional walk brings you closer to state of wonder and a small connection to something more intangible but sublimely fulfilling.

Case in point was a simple early morning walk up Via Di Panico. The intent was to follow the footsteps of  Antonio Ricci, the hero of Vittorio De Sica's 1948 neorealist classic, Ladri di biciclette (Bicycle Thieves). The film follows the story of a poor unemployed man, Antonio, who finally gets a job as a poster hanger. He gets his bicycle out of hock and happily goes to his first day of work. While he's pasting up a huge movie poster his bicycle gets stolen. The rest of the movie follows his increasingly desperate search for his bicycle. He's accompanied by his adorable and strangely adult-like young son, Bruno. The film ends in tragedy as Antonio himself steals a bike, gets caught and is publicly shamed.

There's a scene in the movie where he finds out the name of street where the man who stole his bike lives - Via Di Panico. As he confronts the thief, he draws a crowd - the neighborhood knows and defends the young hoodlum, as he's one of their own. Antonio is driven away empty handed.

It turned out there was a street called Via Di Panico in Rione Ponte, a few blocks from the place we were staying in Rome. We started at the foot of that street early one morning. The sun shown warm, painting the old edifices with soft light. We met a dog - and its owner a few steps behind. The dog was a little upset with us, getting in the way of its daily rounds. It was small, but it barked loud and long. A little bit like the Via Panico denizens of De Sica's film, defending their turf against outsiders.

Was this the street Di Sica shot? Landmarks from the film were hard to discern. We were working from memory, rather than photographic evidence. But no matter, walking the streets where one of the greatest of Italian film directors may have shot one of the greatest films ever made was enough in itself. I stopped to shoot a madonella that looks suspiciously like the madonella in the film. The putti looked a bit different and one had gotten its head knocked off. The image of the Madonna is different too. But the basic details of the frame and the awning are nearly identical.

While we were in Rome, serendipitously, there was an exhibition at the Museo dell'Ara Pacis on De Sica's life and films, Tutti De Sica. Filled with memorabilia, old posters, handbills, photographs, video monitors showing clips from his films, Tutti De Sica was right up any film nerd's alley. They even had the stolen bicycle from Ladri di biciclette. The real one! Hey Antonio! We found your bike!